What happens in a UBER car, stays ina UBER car: creative or bad marketing choice?

Being a college student, especially at a school like USC known for its “party life” during the weekends, many times you may find yourself at the verge of making the decision between going out with your friends and having to stay home because of the risk of getting a DUI. I say this because going out at night at a school like USC many times involves drinking with friends and, given the dimensions of the city, this may jeopardize the driving privileges of any student. Besides all the discussion that this topic may generate at an ethical and moral level, I want to focus on the reality and on the practical side of the issue. Many times, in order to not forgo the opportunity of going out with friends and enjoy the college experience, students take the risk of getting their license to be taken away. Since 2009 this risk has been immensely decreased thanks to one of the most successful invention in the latest years: UBER.

To say in a better way, those who launched UBER didn’t reinvent the wheel, but combined and proposed services that already existed in a new and unique way. They combined the classic taxi service with the latest smartphones’ technologies through an app. For those of you who are out of the college-party scenery, UBER is a taxi service that allows users to call a driver through the subscription to a free app. This app shows the user how many cars are available, how far they are and it also let the user estimate the cost of the fare. Moreover, the user is able to track the route of the assigned car thanks to the mapping ability of smartphones. A user is also able to choose different types of cars: UBERX (normal sedan cars), UBER XL (big suv that fit up to 8 people) and UBER black (more luxurious vehicle for those who desire a more fancy drive). The app also allows the user to contact the assigned driver through calls or text; also it doesn’t require the driver to receive any on-hand payment, since each UBER’s user’s profile is connected to a credit or debit card.

If you go on a college campus the word-of-mouth marketing that UBER receives between the students is very strong, positive and effective. At least here at USC the majority of students that I have met have used and would use UBER again. Despite this form of marketing, UBER is trying to be known by a broader demographic than just college students. Therefore the company needs to implement different marketing campaigns that capture the attention of the targeted demographic. In order to do this, the company used a rather unusual method. I say unusual because, despite the fact that other companies have used the same method, UBER gave it a twist that is quite risky.

In one of the latest episodes of the hit NBC show “Chicago PD” UBER was featured. As the title suggests, the series shows the work of a crime investigation unit at the police department in Chicago. For this particular episode the unit was investigating on a kidnapping case where two college students were kidnapped from a UBER car after the kidnapper had beaten the driver to death.


In the episode one the officer answers his boss question about what UBER is by giving a very detailed description of the service; description that is seen by all the viewers of the hit show. This is a clear marketing strategy that the company adopted in this case, since it incorporated a sale pitch of the service into the dialogue of the plot of the TV episode. In my opinion this was a good idea because the detailed description captured the attention of the viewers of the show, which they are older than college students, given the content of the show, and who have a particular interested for detailed criminal cases which will allow them to remember what UBER is about.

So far nothing new and too risky; the risky part is the fact that the company was associated with very serious crimes that were committed in a company vehicle. This association is very risky because it may create the idea in the minds of the viewers that what happened to the girls and the driver could happen to them if they would use the same taxi service. If people like me, who have used UBER multiple times and are very familiar with the safety of the service, may not be very touched by such mentioning of the company in the show; new and potential customers may have a distorted image of what the company is really about and may even get detached from the willingness to sign up for the service.

If I agree with the fact that UBER should expand its marketing to a much older demographic, I also believe that this particular marketing strategy wasn’t really the right thing to do. UBER should probably try to attract customer attention with more traditional marketing methods or with a different portrayal of the company image on a very successful TV show. For example, I would make the main protagonist’s UBER ride to be one the main reason why he was able to solve the case. Moreover, in more calm and mellow shows, I would make the protagonist use UBER as their taxi service.

I would like to know what you think about this marketing strategy: is it effective and why? Should the company keep using the same approach or should the company change it? What does the company should do to attract a broader demographic


The link for the “Chicago PD” episode in which UBER is mentioned can be found below the “Chicago PD” picture. Pay particular attention to the first 10 minutes.

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12 Responses to What happens in a UBER car, stays ina UBER car: creative or bad marketing choice?

  1. Melissa P. says:

    Ah, product placement is such a fascinating topic for me. Brands tend to be very blunt with this marketing strategy and, if they are not careful, it can even be a tad annoying for the viewer. I’ve actually heard of and used UBER even though I am not in the “college party” scene as you describe it. Perhaps it varies from city to city but I had no idea that UBER was even targeting college students or that college students were really into using the company instead of a normal taxi. I’ve used UBER several times when traveling for work and am not renting a car. I agree with you that it is much more convenient because we are so attached and dependent on our phones that it makes sense to use it to hail a cab as well.

    I personally thought that this product placement was very risky and if I had been in charged of the marketing department, I wouldn’t have approved it. People who watch these types of shoes like Chicago PD and Law and Order are very into their shoes and it could very easily backfire for UBER. For someone who watches the show and has never used UBER, this could be seen as an unsafe company associated with crimes. I think besides the product placement on Chicago PD, the company is doing a great job at target marketing because the different target audiences that the company is trying to approach aren’t aware that UBER is also targeting other audiences. As you mentioned, anyone can benefit from this great program and that’s what they should be focusing on – whether it’s a college student that needs to get back to his or her apartment or a young professional who is trying to get to a meeting when traveling for work.

    • Meradyth says:

      I love Uber and think it’s a great idea for not only college students, but for others who want to go out and not worry about driving. Not only has Uber been mentioned on Chicago PD, but I seemed like each week I hear Uber mentioned in some tv show as a cursory comment or more involved in the story. It’s a great way to advertise to the masses without necessarily having to advertise. Uber is also known to get involved in the local community events that have a drinking aspects. With all this being said, I don’t really like their current ad campaign. It makes me think that something trashy is going on in the backseat of the car. Uber doesn’t need to be the classiest service around, but if they want to appeal to the older demographic, they shouldn’t use advertising that alienates them.

  2. Darling says:

    I’m a very big fan of UBER and use it frequently but if I wasn’t already a fan this marketing strategy would definitely have caused some concerns about the company and its safety. However, what I do find interesting about this strategy is that I think a lot of UBER users, I know I do, worry about something bad happening while in an UBER whether it’s a car accident, or worse. I think that this strategy would have benefited from a sort of follow-up campaigning where UBER reinforces how safe it is, why it should be used, etc.

  3. Kara says:

    I did see this episode of the show, but I had no idea that Uber was responsible for the scene! Honestly, I thought it was brilliant that the show utilized technology that many people use in real life, but I didn’t even think twice about recognizing Uber, because I use it already. I do not think if I have not heard of the company before, that the use of the standard black car and mention of the company would make me want to use it for personal transportation. Therefore, I think the company should definitely market within television shows which reach such a broad audience. However, as you mentioned, the positioning of the brand should be perceived as positive.

  4. Jillian says:

    First of all, what a great post! Being from Hawaii, we’re not exposed to Uber as much as Mainland residents are. However, I can say that Uber is definitely beginning to take off and make more of a name for themselves here through word of mouth marketing. Product placement in this TV show (or any TV show for that matter) is such a genius idea, in my eyes. It’s not often that viewers are exposed to seeing real brands in TV shows or movies, so when we, as consumers see them, we definitely pick up on it.

    I completely get what you’re saying about UBER associating themselves with a negative incident, but I honestly feel like this was strategic and here’s why. Personally, I love to watch shows like this (though I’ve never actually watched this one). I just discovered Criminal Minds and am glued to it when I’m at home. I put it on while I’m doing homework or when I’m dozing off to sleep. My boyfriend always falls asleep when I put it on, or changes it when we watch something together, so he doesn’t ever really know what’s going on. Often, when an extra crazy episode comes on, I find myself recapping the episode for him. When I do, it’s never about the good stuff that happened in the show. For example, just recently, I watched an episode where the antagonist kidnapped a father and daughter duo. The criminal forced an already beaten and weak dad to fight with a healthy, ready, willing and able man in order to keep himself and his daughter alive. From the entire show, that’s the only part that I talked about and that’s why I believe the placement of their product in this way was strategic.

  5. Ashley says:

    Yikes! If UBER does want to expand its target audience, this doesn’t seem the best way to go about it. For the typical “Chicago PD” audience demographic, I’d think that they might already have a negative impression of UBER, or question its safety. Showcasing an UBER car as a potential homicide crime scene might reinforce the negative perception this audience might already have.

    In this case, it seems like UBER was just thinking about how to reach its target audience, without thinking about what the actual message should be. I see the tactic here, but fail to understand where the strategic thinking comes into play. Yes, these shows are a great way to connect with the intended audience, but it’s not the right way to position the brand.

    I also want to point out that seeking to expand the target audience to an older demographic might shift the perception of UBER’s young, trendy consumer base. UBER might want to consider the potential risks in changing its tone to suit a more mature audience, as this could be in direct opposition to the brand personality that its college-aged heavy users expect. For a brand with a strong, young voice, this could be a delicate balancing act, and should be approached with more consumer research and strategy.

  6. Nick Kubik says:

    UBER and other services like it have been in the news in my area a bunch lately. It hasn’t been for the Chicago PD episode, but because of the traditional taxi companies and their fear that these services aren’t charged the same license fees and taxes as taxi companies. Though much of the attention is on taxes and taxi’s here, changing the subject might be just what the doctor ordered. That may have been part of the goal of UBER when developing this idea for product placement, as it draws attention away from everything else. Putting a twist on that attention makes it memorable. Could it be dangerous for the company? Yes! Is it memorable? Absolutely! Deal with the fallout well and the company will grow. This is a perfect example of my favorite saying, don’t think outside of the box… Create your own box and think outside of it.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Nazly says:

    I love Uber. I use it all the time. It is convenient, accessible and safe so far. Nick brought up a good point on Uber’s strategic move to brand itself in a cop show. I think it was a bold and creative move as well since it highlighted what Uber does. In the end, don’t you want people to remember your brand? If so, how do you integrate that? Uber understood and calculated the risk and it worked to their advantage. I’m curious to see who they hired for their external communications and what prompt them to insert Uber in this show. I also wondered what was the feedback like after the show aired.

  8. Anamaria says:

    Okay guys, I’m starting to feel a little dated here. I have never used Uber. There, I’ve said it. I’m their target demo. The “older” audience. Ha. Have you seen that Uber is now targeting parents to try and get them to use a variant of the Uber service to shuttle kids to and from practice? Not sure that I would consider getting into some random bloke’s car myself, much less put my kids in that position. And Uber just made it creepier by adding in the crime twist via this TV placement. No thank you. I’ll go it old school and take a cab and I’ll find a carpool for my kid.

    I tend to be paranoid already, so for people like me, this was a definite turn off.

  9. Graham says:

    Great post and fun topic. I like Uber, I’ve used them a few times around LA. I’ve also used Lyft. It’s interesting to me that Uber was so successful as the idea isn’t too complex really. It’s essentially a taxi service on a mobile device. Still it has a sort of simple elegance to it. The Uber strategy has been effective at building a base but attracting a broader demographic can be tricky. The “black car” branding has been pretty successful for Uber at making them a sort of classy, limo-esque sort of service. That has led to a lot of awareness in business communities. I think they probably also do well with the travel sector. The success of uber and the proliferation of uber clones tells me that there certainly is a market for this.

  10. pchoksi says:

    I love Uber and I love the way that its concept has been so well accepted by the public. I understand that Uber’s marketing has not been exceptionally good and there is definitely a lot of space of progressive marketing. Yet, I like Uber for what it is. Black, simple and efficient. Attracting older audience can definitely widen its audience horizon.

  11. Xi Kang says:

    Great post! I think Uber’s success heavily relies on customers’ positive word-of-mouth. Many of my friends recommended it to me. As far as I am concerned, placing Uber in a popular show such as the Chicago PD is a wise choice as long as the audiences have already known Uber well and they hold a positive opinion towards this brand. However, as you mentioned in the post, Uber is trying to be known by a broader demographic, which indicates that it has great risk of leaving negative impressions to those audiences who knew nothing about it. Therefore, the company should do a thorough research before placing the product into a show.

    Xi Kang